Leonard Cohen is a songwriting great. A true living legend. He also, like some of the Important Male Writers of his generation — Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, John Updike — writes about sexuality with a male-oriented frankness that must’ve felt radical and bohemian in a more puritanical era, but in hindsight doesn’t necessarily look so different from the womanizing of the gray flannel suits on Mad Men. On the classic 1974 song “Chelsea Hotel #2,” he sings about remembering a woman “giving me head on the unmade bed,” and then concludes that “I don’t even think of you that often” — a reflection that rings true, which is partly why it’s powerful art, but not exactly something you should put on a mixtape for a female subordinate. Or is it?
The allegations in a recent sexual harassment lawsuit involving a Silicon Valley venture capital firm aren’t quite so clear-cut, but they do shed intriguing light on how Cohen’s lustier work could potentially come across as creepy in the wrong context. According to the New York Times (via the Daily Swarm), Kleiner Perkins partner Ellen Pao claims it was inappropriate of senior partner Randy Komisar to give her a copy of Cohen’s 2006 Book of Longing, an anthology of poetry and sketches. Given that it’s by Cohen, it’s only logical that a Times reviewer would call the book both “profound” and “steamy,” two words that could apply to some of Cohen’s best work ever since 1967’s “Suzanne.”
Now, Komisar reportedly contends that he gave the book to Pao as a gift in return for a statue of Buddha she had given him (they had been talking about Komisar’s Buddhism, and Cohen was ordained a Buddhist monk in 1996). As the Times points out, the book includes lines like “You came to me this morning / And you handled me like meat / You’d have to be a man to know / How good that feels how sweet.” We’re not exactly talking James Joyce’s awesomely filthy letters to his wife here, but even if both sides are telling the truth, it does raise an interesting question: Is Cohen’s erotically charged poetry, as art, an innocuous gift? Or, given by a senior partner to a partner at a firm, is it the equivalent of an unwanted sexual advance?
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